Ceci n’est pas un coup d’oeil
From the outset, the war in Libya was destined to be a strange sort of conflict. The word surreal is thrown around a lot, and it’s not inappropriate, although broadening the artistic scope to include dadaism also seems appropriate. From the outset you had a group of rebels whose champions insist they be called revolutionaries but some of whom call themselves “armed civilian” fighters, a term which recalls “anti-art” artworks, using what are undoubtedly the military equivalent of Duchamp’s readymades (and about as effective at being artillery pieces as Duchamp’s work was at being a fountain) fighting the gutted military led by a bizarre, garish nutcase with the rank of Colonel (and indeed, had promoted himself from captain after taking power just to achieve it).
Then, of course, there is the reporting – especially by non-journalists taking advantage of new media, along with the PR outlets of the rebels – of the war itself. To oversimplify, the two Libyan governments each had their own problems with reality. While Gaddafi always had a penchant for incomprehensible tirades with only a tangential connection to reality, the National Transitional Council in Benghazi seems to have a problem of trumpeting pronouncements with no evidence and keeping mum on serious developments it is aware of – although mostly it swims in the vast sea of battlefield voices blaring, incubating and circulating memes, rumors, conspiracy theories, and lies.
The adverserial relationship between war and reality is already well documented, from the very meaning of the ancient wyrre to the modern “fog of war.” Rarely, however, has every loose agglomeration of fact, perception, rumor, and falsehood been so rapidly created, altered, disseminated and regurgitated as now. It’s not that war was ever a rational, straightforward affair, but we have no excuse for believing so now.
There is also, of course, the whole issue of a Thucydidean loss of meaning in words, and as far as words go there is some potential for mischievous wordplay in comparing the high-technological Western invention of a “limited time, limited scope military action” with its avant garde predecessor that is Duchamp’s interest in the “kinetic” work of art (and one might go further and trace the similarities between the strategic attitude towards the Libyan fighters and the artistic community’s reception of “found objects,” but now we are digressing from a digression). It is the media and reporting of the Libyan war, however, and the problem of truth itself, which has caused the most confusion and mental whiplash in the observers.
From the journalists trapped in pro-Gaddafi Tripoli in the Rixos hotel, subject to tightly-controlled life and surrounded with staged rallies of Gaddafi’s well oiled disinformation machine to the chaotic thousand-headed misinformation cloud from which most information about the rebels can go directly to the eyes of media-savvy consumers across Libya and the world, the degree of outright untruth war generates was bare for all to see.
Everyone expects the sort of willfully ignorant Baghdad Bob style declarations from the dictatorship. What is less obvious, and less comical, but still vital, is the information problem of the National Transitional Council and the sundry forces and bands fighting under its banner against the regime, who are supposed to be running the country afterwards. It is not as if the battle of Tripoli has been the first event to call into question the efficacy of the NTC’s handling of information on issues of high importance. Just weeks ago, after all, we learned that somebody killed Abdul Fatah Younis on his way back to Tripoli on a warrant to testify to judges about something the NTC does not even claim to know about. Various theories and stories have been circulated about suspicions that he was a double agent for Gaddafi, or that Islamists killed him for his past conduct as Interior Minister, or that pro-Gaddafi forces killed him for betraying the Colonel. Given the problem of managing a disparate opposition’s varied tribal groups and preventing the defection or disaffection of any one of them, it might be understandable why the NTC would not be entirely forthcoming or outright disinformative about the story. Nevertheless that incident really leaves us to question whether the narrative free fire zone emerging in Tripoli’s fall is merely product of the fog of war.
Some of the misperception about combat in Tripoli has simply been due to sheer lack of information and a fixation on the symbolic. While some commentators on Twitter were haranguing various skeptics and naysayers, enjoining the rest of the world to let the rebels celebrate, the battle for Tripoli was in fact raging on. It is understandable that when reporters are racing into an empty city and watching jubilant rebels celebrate and fire into the air at Green Square that pundits might have the impression the war was all but over. Of course, Tripoli is rather larger than Green Square, now renamed by Martyr’s square, but regardless of what Google says, the map is not the territory.
The ultimate farce, though, is the news that Saif Gaddafi, far from being captured and on his way to a potential ICC trial, is actually out and about, visiting Rixos and showing journalists where Libyan loyalists are arming to wage war against the rebel forces. The battle is far from over, even though it looks as if Gaddafi will lose after all. But how the regime falls is important too, at least for Libyans and the European and Arab countries which will have to live with their new state. For all the talk about how the “hard challenges are ahead,” the NTC’s numerous problems handling sensitive issues such as the killing of Younis and the capture and trial of a key regime figure are the sort of issues that do matter, and arguably go beyond the simple fog of war. In part, much of the rumor and misinformation is due to the application of the avant garde creativity of social media to the realm of information dissemination:
The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
This might make nice aesthetic theory but it’s utter disaster on a massive and uninhibited scale for leadership and governance, and will likely become more of a problem as the absence of the common enemy exacerbate . Some commentators have referred to the uprising in Libya as a crowdsourced revolution. This might seem like a positive thing, until one realizes that out of this one must forge a viable endgame in Tripoli and a new government. The NTC’s flexibility with information as a way of smoothing over potential hangups to its legitimacy or inflating the accomplishments of certain members within it might be a less serious problem during wartime, but the critics who have paid attention to these issues will need answers when the NTC takes over.
Of course, this issue is not necessarily problematic for the United States. Baudrillard, when he wrote his The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, argued that the Persian Gulf War failed the Clausewitzian litmus test since there was an absence of genuine political objectives over the opponent’s willpower by either Saddam’s Iraq or the United States. Both were making sacrifices for symbolic political purposes unrelated to the progress of the war itself. Baudrillard’s idea was certainly fanciful and it might not be best applied to the Gulf War, but it is worth noting that US political objectives never really had much to do with the material outcomes as the effect of the narrative. This was intended to de-emphasize the traditional strategic considerations and military criteria to justify the need to “appear to be on the side of the people” or various other narrative concerns. In practice, of course, as the dadaists recognized in the world of art, is that a narrative which does not correspond to the real world and its problems invites and deserves to be destroyed. Tripoli was not the coup d’oeil it appeared to be Sunday night, with its “hours, not days,” but it made for a good story.
Eventually spinning yarns will not be enough. Until then, the surreal battle of disinformation and misinformation will continue.